WASHINGTON – House Democrats, emboldened by their united opposition to President Bush's Social Security (search) privatization proposal, are preparing to pivot soon to supporting proposals aimed on boosting personal savings outside the federal retirement program.
Among the ideas being considered, according to congressional aides speaking on the condition of anonymity, are improvements to existing retirement savings programs, such as trying to increase participation in corporate 401(k) plans (search) by automatically enrolling workers. Under current law, workers must opt into such programs.
Another idea in a more developmental stage is a civilian version of the Thrift Savings Plan (search), the 401(k)-style program that federal employees can invest in on top of the contributions they make to Social Security.
If Bush's private accounts are taken off the table, the Democrats must have other savings ideas, the Democrats say.
The tactical shift comes as the Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing Tuesday about the president's proposal to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market. Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the panel, said last week he will work solely with committee Republicans to produce legislation enacting the president's proposal, hoping Democrats will join in when it is debated on the Senate floor.
The Democratic shift also comes as Bush winds down a 60-day, 60-city tour aimed at building support for his proposal, a drive he kicked off March 3. On the stump, Bush has conceded that his accounts would do nothing to improve Social Security's long-term financial underpinnings, which Democrats believe gives them an opening to offer more immediate steps for increasing individual savings.
The national savings rate is at its lowest level since the 1930s, having declined from 9.4 percent in 1970 to 1 percent in 2004. Only half of eligible workers participate in company-sponsored savings plans, while 80 percent of small business employees have no plan at all. About 40 percent of U.S. households do not have any retirement savings accounts other than their expected Social Security benefit checks.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who this year has proposed three pieces of retirement savings legislation, said Monday, "We need to work on strengthening Social Security, but if you look at where the immediate problems are, it's not in Social Security, it's in their ability to save for retirement and the amount they have saved."
His bills would create automatic 401(k) enrollment; allow for direct deposit of a portion of an individual's federal income tax return; and extend a tax credit for investing in 401(k) and Individual Retirement Accounts that is due to expire next year.
House Democrats are feeling competing pressures at this point in the Social Security debate, the aides said.
The members feel their united front against Bush's plan has successfully derailed his personal account proposal, and they are reluctant to abandon that posture while polls continue to show public concern about it. At the same time, constituents are asking them about their alternative vision, while members are "itchy," in the words of one aide, to move on to a new line of debate.
Among those advising them is Peter Orszag, an economic policy adviser in the Clinton administration who now heads the Retirement Security Project.
He is recommending Emanuel's proposals to extend the savings tax credit and automatically enroll workers in 401(k)s. Orszag also wants automatic increases in the percentage of income directed toward 401(k)s and the automatic diversification of assets in them as workers near retirement.
"This is an area where there is strong bipartisan interest," Orszag said. "Why not do something that both sides agree on, and do something that will build a sense of bipartisanship, as a precursor to dealing with some of the more difficult issues down the road?"